Everybody Needs Good Theology

“Hurting people don’t need theology. They need a hug.” 

I frequently hear that sentiment, or something like it, expressed by people who are wary of theology. Theology, they feel, is for the brainy, the academic, for those separated from the pains and trials of real life. When people are hurting, or struggling with pornography, or knee deep in an eating disorder, they don’t need theology. People don’t need theology when they can’t pay the bills, when their children are sick, or when their marriages are crumbling.

That’s an understandable sentiment, but it’s dangerously wrong. 

I can’t think of anything that’s more important in the midst of a crisis than what you believe about God. Virtually any statement you make about God, about yourself, about your sin, or about the world, is at its heart a theological statement. Your understanding of God and His character filters down to everything you think and do.

When people say that theology is useless in the midst of a crisis, I suspect they’re trying to say that theology apart from love is useless. They’re attempting to paraphrase James, who tells us bluntly that “faith without works is useless.” Fair enough, but James didn’t mean to encourage good works without any coherent understanding of God and His Word. The book of James is, in fact, full of theological statements about God’s character, the work of Jesus, and eschatology. It’s a profoundly theological book, and James’ practical statements are consistently grounded in theological truth.

Too often, we think of theology as a series of useless arguments about how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. In reality, every time you tell somebody, “God loves you,” you’re making a theological statement. Every time you proclaim the infinite grace of God, expressed through Jesus, you’re making a theological statement. Every time you talk about sin or grace or the hope of resurrection, you’re talking about theology. 

As Christians, even our acts of mercy and kindness are undergirded with an understanding of theology — even if that theology is a basic one. “We love because He first loved us,” John wrote. You need at least a little bit of theology to know what that means — how did He love us, why did He love us, what did that love look like?

Without theology, human acts of love have no real meaning. They’re an abstraction without hands or feet.

Of course, knowledge without love can make people cold, angry, and unhelpful. The problem, though, isn’t too much theology. The problem is bad theology.

For the young man wrestling with pornography, it matters immensely that each person is made in God’s image, particularly the young women who fill his computer screen. For the family filled with anger and unforgiveness, understanding God’s grace and forgiveness is of the highest importance. For the young woman facing an uncertain future, the sovereignty of God makes an enormous difference in the way she approaches her life.

I’m not suggesting that hurting people should be assaulted with theological statements. But without a proper understanding of God and His character, we are more likely to make that mistake. When we’re insensitive toward other people, we don’t need less theology. We need better theology. We need to study God’s Word even more carefully to understand how our beliefs about God should affect our words and actions.

So please don’t create a false dichotomy between theology and love. Don’t divide the mind from the heart and hands, as if what you believe has no impact on what you do.

What you believe about God is absolutely essential. It might even be the most important thing about you, because it affects everything you think and do. Without theology, we have no way to understand love, God, or hope. But a proper understanding of God, His Word, and His character has an impact that resonates for eternity.

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God Hears

When you told me of your unanswered prayers, I felt the tears spring to my eyes. The tears fell for you and those for whom you pray, but they also fell for me and every saint who prays without answer. The space between promise and fulfillment is sometimes a dry valley.

I meant to tell you that we walk the valley in good company. I thought of Abraham, promised a son and a land and infinite blessing. He waited 25 years to see the son. He never owned the land, and the blessing was mixed at best. I thought of generation after generation of Abraham’s descendants, born and raised in slavery, only to die in slavery, promised a home that they never occupied. I remembered the prophets, who looked ahead and saw their nation’s Savior, but never lived to meet Him. And I remembered that Savior, crying and praying and sweating drops of blood, asking for some way around the Cross, but finding none.

I thought of John, who closed the last book of the Bible with a prayer that remains unanswered: Come, Lord Jesus.

For two thousand years now, we’ve waited for the answer to that prayer. Oh, Lord Jesus, please come.

I did tell you that the story isn’t over yet. There is more to be written, not only for you but for every saint made heartsick from waiting. I encouraged you to keep praying, because God isn’t finished yet.

Dear friend, God hears you. That hope sustained Abraham, as he counted the innumerable stars and felt those stars silently mock his prayers. That hope sustained the prophets and the believers and the martyrs, who prayed without answer for so many years.

God hears you, and the story isn’t over. Jesus will come and wipe away our tears. In the meanwhile, what can we do but keep praying and hoping and crying?

I also meant to tell you that He weeps with you. We remember how Jesus wept, but we often forget why. He wept for his friend Lazarus, but also because sin and death are intruders. They are always violators and defilers of all He made. Jesus felt what it’s like to wait, to live between promise and fulfillment. So He wept with us and He wept for us. Even now, He sees your pain, He weeps for it, and He promises to return and make everything right.

Oh Lord Jesus, please come.

When I see you, friend, I see a warrior. Your callouses are harder than my own, and your knees are softer. You’ve prayed and suffered in ways I don’t understand. I see how you radiate hope despite the waiting, and joy despite the pain. You know that God hears you, and that’s why you keep praying.

Please keep praying, please keep hoping, and please don’t give up. You’ve already reminded me in so many ways that He hears what we pray. You give hope to me and to every saint who waits for an answer.

The valley between promise and fulfillment can be a dark one, so let’s walk it together and look toward that day of fulfillment. God hears you, and His own Son walked this valley before us to show us just how well He hears.

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You’ll Love Her More and More

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWe two began in a small pond, in a small boat, rowing with separate strokes. The banks were well-defined, the waters were shallow, and the current was non-existent. It was easy. Like a kiddie pool without the kids.

“You’ll love her more and more,” they said. I imagined growing old together in this pond, rowing in ever-increasing unison. The joys of our pond would multiply again and again and again. More fish, more toys, maybe a child or two to play by the bank while we rowed. An inflatable raft to soak in the sun when we tired of rowing the boat.

You’ll love her more and more.” And I knew it was true.

But the pond began to change. At first it grew a little bit deeper. The bottom wasn’t so easy to see anymore. The banks also widened, and I couldn’t reach the edge from the boat anymore. Our pond was more dangerous, but it was somehow more appealing. I had the sense that there were nooks and crannies I would never explore, even with a lifetime to row and swim. It wasn’t so much like a kiddie pool anymore, but it was strangely better.

Then the currents began to flow. The pond became a creek, then a stream, then a river. A few of the currents even threatened to toss one or both of us overboard. There were currents we seemed to generate: Fear, Anger, Pride, or Selfishness. Others blindsided us from beneath and beside the boat. They had awful names like Poverty, Loneliness, Sickness, and Death.

You’ll love her more and more,” they told me. And I knew it was true, but it wasn’t how I imagined.

I loved you more because you stayed in the boat with me and kept rowing, even when the currents were swift. Sometimes, in my selfishness and anger, I rowed against you, in the opposite direction. But you stayed in the boat anyway.

Your arms and my arms grew tired, but they also grew stronger. We did row in ever-increasing unison. It’s a strange thing, but once the currents were behind us, we laughed at them sometimes. Not because they were easy, or even particularly funny, but because we’d rowed through them together and they didn’t seem so terrible anymore. We laughed in delight because we were alive. And because neither of us had jumped overboard.

We looked back upstream and remembered the perils we had passed. I marveled at the depth of this woman sitting in the boat with me, this creative and lovely and wonderfully strong woman, whom I once thought I knew but didn’t really know. My understanding had been as shallow as that little pond, as narrow as its banks.

As the river got deeper, so did our love. As the currents grew stronger, so did our love.

And we increasingly noticed another Current, stronger than all of the others. Sometimes we’d missed it as we rowed, but it was often visible when we looked back. Sometimes the Current seemed to move us toward the terrible rapids, and sometimes away. But the Current was always there. The Current was alive, stronger than us both, and He –yes, it was a “He” — gave us His strength. He taught us to row, not only in sync with one another, but in sync with Him.

“You’ll love her more and more.” And it was truer than I’d imagined. Loving you more didn’t mean endlessly rowing around and around, in an easy little pond, watching the toys and shiny rocks multiply. Loving you more meant seeing your beauty and strength and grace, even as the water splashed up around us and we faced the ever-present realities of fallenness, sin, and death.

Loving you more meant watching carefully as you learned to row in sync with the Eternal Current, the One who made the river and the boat and these two feeble people inside. The One who made our love to be a dim reflection of His own.

Loving you more meant rowing together as we learned to row with Him. And it meant deciding every day that we’ll keep rowing together, until our boat reaches that junction where every river driven by the Eternal Current flows together, and His love overshadows and consumes our own. We’ll land on the shore at last, with every traveler and lover who rows on His river. We’ll lie down and bask in the light of His love, His perfect and ever-blazing love. The Tree of Life will line the shore and the light of God will never end.

“You’ll love her more and more,” they said. I believed them then, and I believe now more than ever.

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What’s Harder to Say Than “I’m Sorry”?

Despite what Peter Cetera told us, it’s not really hard to say, “I’m sorry.” Those two words are easy to blurt out in the heat of an argument, as a simple attempt to diffuse somebody else’s anger. Saying, “I’m sorry” isn’t an admission of guilt as much as it’s a statement of regret.

“I’m sorry your feelings were hurt.” 

“I’m sorry that what I did made you angry.” 

“I’m sorry, but I did what I felt I had to do.” 

Those aren’t really apologies, and they’re unlikely to bring reconciliation to a fractured relationship. Matthew 6:26 says that King Herod was “sorry” for beheading John the Baptist. That’s awesome that he was sorry, but “sorry” and a really skilled neck surgeon would still amount to one dead prophet. Herod regretted having John’s head removed, but he did it anyway, because he wanted to save face at a party. His regret didn’t affect his behavior one iota, nor did it imply true repentance for his actions.

When our kids were very young, a friend suggested to us that instead of making them say, “I’m sorry” to each other, we try a different phrase:

“Will you forgive me for [pulling your hair, calling you a potty name, stuffing you into the toy box, etc.]?” 

Although I often fail at this, I’ve started trying to implement it in my own relationships, particularly with my wife. “I was wrong to [snap at you, eat all the cookies you made for your friends, insult Downton Abbey, etc.]. Will you please forgive me?”

Asking for forgiveness is harder — and more effective — than saying, “I’m sorry.” First, because when you ask forgiveness, you’re taking responsibility for what you did wrong. You’re acknowledging that your own sinful choices contributed to the conflict. It forces you to verbalize your own sin and confess it to somebody else. That’s painful to do, but absolutely essential. You can’t change your sinful patterns if you don’t admit them. Second, asking for forgiveness places you at the mercy of the other person. It’s an inherently humble act, in which you acknowledge that reconciliation is a two-way street. You can holler, “I’m sorry,” and then walk away before the hard work of conflict resolution is completed. You can’t do that when you ask for forgiveness. You have to wait in humility for the other person’s answer. Forgiveness can be extended in one direction — after all, that’s what God has done for us in Jesus — but relational reconciliation usually requires both parties to participate.

So the next time you find yourself in a conflict, ask this: “Am I even partially to blame?” If so, practice these words: “Will you forgive me for…?”

Yes, it’s even harder than saying, “I’m sorry.” But it’s immeasurably better.

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Control is an Illusion

Four years ago today my son was born unable to breathe. We had no indication during my wife’s pregnancy that he was anything but perfectly healthy. Since he is our third child, we really felt we had the whole labor and delivery thing down. I know it sounds ridiculous, but somehow a couple of “normal” experiences had convinced us that this would be no different.

Within seconds after his birth, I knew something was not right. I kept waiting for him to start crying, but I only heard a very small whine, almost like the mewing of a cat. He began to turn blue, and the nurses frantically tried to clear his sinus passages so he could breathe. At the risk of sharing too much, I saw copious amounts of fluid pour from his nose. No matter how much they cleared out, though, it seemed there was always more.

About five minutes later (it felt like an hour), a doctor rushed into the room and placed tubes in his nose. They whisked him away and escorted me down the hall to explain that he was headed to the NICU. For some reason, even though he was a full-term baby who weighed well over nine pounds, his lungs were not fully developed. His body lacked the ability to create a very critical soap (called surfactant) that helps control surface tension in the lungs and keeps them from collapsing on themselves.

For the next week, he was on a respirator, until we were finally able to take him home.

Every so often, we have an experience that reminds us how little we are in control of our own lives. There was literally nothing tangible I could do for my son at that moment. I had no skill to save him. I had no authority at the hospital. I was completely and utterly out of control. Our story ended happily — he’s perfectly healthy today — but I frequently remember those first few days in the hospital and the feeling of total helplessness.

While we were in that delivery room, Somebody was there who had the power to save my son. It wasn’t the doctor or one of the nurses or me. We’re grateful for advanced medical care, but God saved my son’s life. God preserves his life even now. God preserves mine, and yours, and that of everybody you know. We live because he keeps us breathing. That’s just as true now, when my son is four, as it was when he was a newborn baby. He’s still utterly dependent on God, every moment, just to stay alive.

I bring all of this up because we often like to think we’re in control of our lives. We buy into the humanistic myth that hard work, a can-do attitude, and positive moral virtue can provide us with control over our lives. We can master our own destiny, captain our own ship, and all that hogwash.

But control is an absolute illusion.

We can influence others. We can influence our circumstances. We can manage our attitudes and our own actions. In the final analysis, though, we can’t control anything of true importance. If something is small enough for me to control, it’s almost certainly too small to worry about. The really big stuff — how long my family and I live, our health, the choices of those around me, my employment status, the global economy, the weather, whether my friends and family trust Jesus — I have no control over any of it. From a statistical point of view, I suspect we have control over less than 1% of our circumstances.

That’s why Jesus said that worrying can’t add a single hour to our lives. We are utterly out of control of nearly every significant life circumstance. If you have the illusion that you’re in control, it’s only because nothing really terrible has happened to you yet.

I don’t say any of this to be fatalistic. Quite the opposite, actually. Eventually we all have to decide whether we believe God is in control of our lives. Everybody makes that decision sometime. If He is in control, then worrying is not simply futile, it’s also completely unnecessary. If He is not in control, then we’re doomed anyway. Worrying is still futile and unnecessary, but for completely different reasons.

So at the beginning of a new year, when you’ve made all your plans and resolutions and goals, ask yourself whether those things are helpful tools or whether they’re little gods. Make your plans, but don’t be too surprised if they’re busted into pieces. Not because God hates you, but because He loves you more than He loves your day planner. He insists on being in charge. He seems to think that His plan is better. And here’s the big not-so-secret: His plan is better. It’s not easier. It’s not simple and trouble-free. It’s good, though. It’s eternally and perfectly good, even when we disagree with it.

Sometime this year, you’ll come face to face with the realization that you’re not in control. Something unexpected will mess with your plans. It might be small or it might be enormous. It might be simply inconvenient, or it might be horrific. You’ll have to ask yourself whether you believe that God, who spoke this universe into being, who made you, who holds the world together, who raised His Son from the dead, is really in control. Is He good? And will you trust Him, even when you have no control?

Those moments, if we learn to trust Him, are the moments that transform us into the character of Jesus. As long as we insist on being in control, our hearts grow smaller and blinder and weaker. When we trust Him, though, He changes us, from glory to glory, into the image of His Son.

Control is an illusion, but God is real. Let’s pray for strength to trust His plan, even when our own plans fall apart.

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One Question to Ask Yourself Before Making New Year’s Resolutions

When I was a college pastor, I used to define success for our student leaders every year. I had three goals for them to focus on: love God, love your people, multiply leaders. That was it. I provided those goals for them because I knew that it was easy to lose focus, to shift their attention to auxiliary issues rather than primary ones. “Do I have the biggest group?” “Is my group the most fun and popular?” “Do we finish every question in the study packet each week?” While those indicators might mean something, they don’t necessarily indicate that the group was effective. So I told them this: If you’ve been faithful to love God, love your people, and multiply leaders for the future, then your group is a smashing success. Even if you only have 2 people left in the group in May. Don’t get sidetracked. Focus on what is central.

Similarly, I think we often approach the New Year with a list of wonderful goals, but we haven’t really defined success. We want to lose weight, read the Bible, and take charge of our finances. We’re going to repair the broken sink, make sure our toddlers know how to read in three languages, and get an ‘A’ in differential equations. All wonderful ideas, but we fail to ask, “Why?” Why are we doing any of this?

This year, try asking yourself this question: “What primary value(s) will drive my goals, thoughts, and actions this year?” Don’t write down a list of 27 values. Keep it to no more than three. You can easily remember three, and you can quickly check each of your goals against those values.

So your values might be: love God, love my spouse, and love my kids. Or love God, make friends, and grow in courage. The values will vary from person to person, and yours will vary from year to year, but they will keep you focused.

So when you decide to lose weight, for example, you can check it against your values. Will losing weight help me to know God better? Perhaps, if physical laziness and poor health robs me of the energy I need to pray and to serve. Will saving more money help me to love my family? Quite likely, since you can better provide for them if you’re not buried in debt and overwhelmed by expenses.

Your goals might not dramatically change, but they will be more focused. I’m guessing, also, that they will be fewer. Finally, you’ll know why you’re committing to change. Nobody grows or changes without strong motivation to do so. That’s the reason most of our resolutions fail: We feel we should resolve to do “better,” but we don’t really know why or what “better” even means.

What primary values will drive your goals, thoughts, and actions this year? Write the question down, determine your values, and move from there. Nobody can tackle every problem at once. Finding the simple center of your life will help you make your resolutions and ambitions realistic. It will also inform your prayer, as you seek God’s strength and wisdom to live out your values, to grow in godliness while still very much a sinner.

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